12 February, 2011

An Open (Love) Letter to Borders, or, Borders I Love You (But You're Bringin' Me Down)

I don't do Valentine's Day. That's not about love for me. I love people, and books, and all kinds of other things every day, not just on February 14th. But there's one thing I love that I've recently had to give up, and I think that not expressing how I feel about it has been seriously stopping up my book-reviewing chi.

So I'd like to take a few thousand words to say how I feel, just to get it off my chest and onto the Internet where it can continue to fester for as long as we both shall live.

If you don't have a half hour to waste, go look at some rabbits.

Maggie Stiefvater talking about Linger. After the signing, she attack-hugged me! Best. Birthday. Present. EVAR.
Dear Borders,

Well, it seems like this might be goodbye. I hope it isn't. I sincerely hope someone out there takes a chance on you and gives you the capital to keep your doors open. Your doors opened for me in 1996 when I took my very first job right here at your store in Glendale, California. I was the youngest hire, and so thrilled and grateful to come to work each day. Throughout the years, despite difficulties, setbacks, and certain horrors that only the retail bookstore environment can produce, you have also been a source for learning, friendship, and excitement in my life. Almost all of my best friends were my coworkers there, among them my best friend of all--who is now my husband.

But even now that I have joined the ranks of ex-Borders employees, and with you on the cusp of bankruptcy, when people ask how I feel about you, I can only tell the truth: I love you, Borders. I wish you well.

My actual Borders Store, appearing in The Simpsons.

Sure, you've made some mistakes, and now you're paying for them, but in my heart the ideals that kept me coming back over the last 14 years, as an employee and a customer both, remain possible, though maybe just out of reach. The selection and eclecticism, the passion and knowledgeability, the commitment and enthusiasm that set Borders apart from its competitors a decade ago lives on only in the hearts and minds of those that can say we "knew you way back when," and who continue to lament, "If only."

If only you had taken the time to promote from within, so that key decision-makers like district managers and corporate heads could have seen things from the sales floor instead of their far-away offices--you could have been the greatest bookstore ever. Instead you helped perpetuate the joke that chain bookstore employees are illiterate, lazy morons who know nothing about real literature and care nothing for their customers. You hired executives with zero bookstore experience and knowledge, who never had to handsell a book to a reluctant reader; who never had to do a floor set while the store was open (near impossible, by the way), and who never had to kick a "patron" out of the store for defecating in the elevator or worse*.

The last middle manager I worked for bragged about their addiction to James Patterson and Dan Brown--a sure sign that their previous book-buying needs had been easily satisfied by a drugstore or supermarket. They asked about my favorite books and authors, and had never heard of Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Garth Stein, or Margaret Atwood.

Bet they didn't know who Lauren Myracle was, either.


Even the buyers seemed to be headquartered in some remote cave dwelling. It took us months in 2006 to get you to let us have more than 2 copies of Twilight and New Moon at a time when no one even knew who Stephenie Meyer was (we were ordering them by the dozens, even though it was against the rules by then--no special orders!) Could you have taken a hint from the huge spike in our sales? In 2008 barely 5 stores carried the critically acclaimed Graceling by Kristin Cashore or The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Getting them into the inventory was like pulling teeth. Yet every store in the country got a boatload of I Am Number Four, by someone who contractually can't even put their name on their published work, because somehow they didn't look closely enough at the contract to realize they were getting the long end of the stick thrust into uncomfortable parts of their anatomy. (But that's a whole 'nother rant. Let's leave it at that for now.)

Yes, our town has its own Dumbledore.
You took away the fun of entering a bookstore: the home-town individuality that our late-90's Borders were encouraged to foster and promote gave way to cookie-cutter displays--so you could walk into any store in the country and feel you were walking into the same store every time. That really took the steam out of my game of Borders BINGO**.

One of my YA displays in 2010
If only you'd realized that book people would miss the thrill of walking into a bookstore and discovering that gem of a book, that obscure literary treasure that just happens to catch your eye as you pass. What happened to troubadours on Friday nights, plucking away on their guitars while the coffee flowed like wine? Or the Expert program that meant anyone could ask for anything from romance novels to discrete mathematics and get a good recommendation from a human being instead of an online algorithm?

Maria V. Snyder, debut of Storm Glass (2008)
My most-recommended author of 2007.
It's not a coincidence that one of her books has a bookseller in it named Alethea.
If only you'd been clearer about when policies existed to be bent but not broken, or how far we needed to bend over backwards in the name of customer service. We never knew if we'd be protected if we upheld the policy, or berated for letting the customer walk all over us. If a customer tries to return 26 copies of an outdated computer book they purchased 3 years ago (approximately 1000 days after the return window closed), is denied according to policy and responds maturely by throwing one of the books at a manager's head***, was that really a customer we wanted to keep? You changed your mind as often as you changed CEOs... which was A LOT.

C.J. Omololu signing Dirty Little Secrets (2010)
Paperback available March 15. READ IT!
You threw your weight behind the blockbusters and forgot about the long tail of smaller authors whose loyal fans could have bolstered your sales--and it wasn't enough for you not to carry them--you actively blocked store managers from being able to order them in, even if we knew they were guaranteed sales! How could you expect us to run the race when you were cutting us off at the knees? We were recommending books we didn't have available to sell; you held us accountable for selling books we didn't care for one whit. Then you turned around and taught customers to expect something for nothing, to buy our products at cost, and then wonder where the money went.

I get that it's not all your fault. Who else is to blame? The economy, the competition, or 9/11****? The digital reader, the Internet, and Amazon.com? (IMHO, consumers are partially to blame, too.) Sure, they all probably had a little something to with your past decade of decline, but you had so many chances to save yourself. So many customers that still prefer paper to e-book. So many great employees still trudge in to work every day, waiting for the other shoe to drop. They're still trying to save you.

Escaping your retail hell was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, and yet I miss it every day.

If only you had let us help.
If you're in the Glendale area, pop in to Borders and say hi. The staff are friendly and well-informed (well, most of them, anyway). They might not have the book, but they'll offer to order it for you! Their Young Adult section is one of the best. Their monthly Big Kid Storytimes are a blast and a half. There are experts on staff for mysteries, literary fiction, cooking and baking, children's books, manga, sci-fi fantasy, nursing, philosophy, and film. All the cafe staff are avid readers and can help you in the bookstore as well. They also make the perfect white mocha :) 
Thanks to Amber L, Mike T, Scott K and all the amazing people I've had the privilege to work with in the last 14 years, who are too numerous to name. I love you guys.

With all that said, kindly Support your local independent bookstore. Because the big ones never love you back.



* I have many horrible, indigestible stories about working at Borders. I tried to pick the least gross one for this article. If you'd like to hear more stories... DON'T. ASK. I don't want to remember.

** Borders BINGO had no real objective except to visit every Borders you could.  I've been to Borders in Los Angeles (7), San Diego (2), San Francisco (2), Santa Barbara, New York (City and Upstate), Las Vegas, and several airports. It used to be fun back when each store's staff could tailor their selection and display to what was popular in their area. When the company decided all our stores should look exactly the same, well. You've seen one, you've seen 'em all.

*** True story.

**** That's a joke from Arrested Development. If you haven't watched it, you should. GO. NOW!

4 comments:

  1. This was really great analysis regarding bookselling through a chain store.

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  2. Since I can't sleep, I thought I would do something productive...like read your post. Well written, well thought out. You nailed it. Great job.

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  3. Sorry to hear that you had to leave the Borders. I totally understand your frustrations. Many of them I share, seeing that I'm one of those small authors. I think your store was the only chain store in the country to carry my unknown book and that was because you went to bat and got them to order it. For that I will always be grateful. I wish you all the success in the world and know that you will go on to do amazing things.

    James

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  4. This is an excellent, heartfelt post. I have a favorite Borders and I've seen some of the examples you've cited. It grieves me to see what's happening to Borders. I've had a book signing at Borders and hate to see it in its current state.

    I treasure the employees of my Borders. You sound just like them--passionate and informed.

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